The benefits of having access to an improved drinking water source can only be fully realized when there is also access to improved sanitation and adherence to good hygiene practices. Beyond the immediate, obvious advantages of people being hydrated and healthier, access to water, sanitation and hygiene – known collectively as our WASH-E project – has profound wider socio-economic impacts, particularly for women and girls.
Diarrhoea affects millions of people world wide, having the greatest impact on children, especially in developing countries. Waterborne diseases remain a cause for concern in both developing and developed countries world wide. In developed areas, improvement in wastewater disposal, protection of water sources and treatment of water supplies has greatly reduced the prevalence of waterborne diseases. However, in South Africa, with its mix of developed and developing regions, water-related diseases are increasing, as a result of unstructured urbanisation and rapid population growth.
Hygiene education comprises abroad range of activities aimed at changing attitudes and behaviours, to break the chain of disease transmission associated with inadequate water and sanitation. In the context of rural Africa, the ideal of providing every household individually with safe piped water cannot be achieved, and the art of keeping well -hygiene -assumes added importance.
Hygiene education is an indispensable part of water supply and sanitation projects and ensures improved health and sustainability of a system after the technical experts’ assistance has been withdrawn. Hygiene education informs community members about the correct use, storage and disposal of water and general hygiene. Supplying clean drinking water and better methods of excreta-disposal do not automatically reduce disease or improve health.
In South Africa it is essential to understand the attitudes and behaviours of developing communities towards water and sanitation. Most developing communities rely on the government to make sure that their projects are sustainable, but it is necessary for them to contribute themselves towards the sustainability of their projects, as well as the development of an appropriate hygiene education and awareness programmes. It is at community level that real decisions on hygiene education should be made. But communities need information to be able to make decisions reflecting their particular aspirations, desires and needs.
School and childhood should go hand in hand, but many children in low-income communities with no access to WASH are unable to attend class because they are sick with a diarrhoeal disease or, particularly in the case of girls in rural areas, because they have to spend large parts of each day fetching water for their family.
For children who are in school, the situation may be no better than at home: globally, around a third of schools have no safe water supply or adequate sanitation, leaving children dehydrated and less able to concentrate, and forcing pupils to use inadequate latrines or go to the toilet outside in the school grounds.
For adolescent girls, the presence of a safe water supply and clean, functioning, private toilet facilities can be the difference between dropping out and getting an education. Furthermore, hygiene education at school can begin a lifetime of better health for all children.
The impact of universal access to WASH on global health would be profound. There is the potential to save the lives of the 829,000 people who currently die every year from diseases directly caused by unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene practices, and we could also drastically reduce child malnourishment, and help alleviate physical and mental under-development. Today, 50% of child malnutrition is associated with unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. Women and girls would have the facilities and knowledge to be able to manage their menstrual cycles in safety and dignity. Similarly, during pregnancy, childbirth, and post-natal care, medical staff, expectant mothers and their families will be better equipped to ensure newborn children are given the safest and healthiest possible start in life.